The Lion King movie review: Jon Favreau's aggressively mediocre retelling lacks heart and nuance
Disney's The Lion King pushes celebrity faces rather than good storytelling.
castDonald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Jd Mccrary, Keegan-michael Key, Eric André
It seems the Circle of Life nowadays is being a grown man watching a Disney reboot of a beloved animated film from childhood. We’ve had three of those this summer alone, and the latest – a remake of one of their greatest – The Lion King is aggressively mediocre in every department except for the visuals. Make no mistake, this is one of the most beautiful looking films ever made, but it lacks both heart and nuance.
The story remains the same – somewhere in the Pride Lands of Africa King Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role) is blessed with a child whom he names Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover). Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to take over the throne so he plots to get rid of the king and his child, and Simba has to learn about life away from the comfort and privilege of his home.
If you’re only interested in gawping at the visual boundaries a film could push The Lion King will blow your mind because there is absolutely no way to tell where the ‘live action’ ends and the CGI animation begins. Everything, from a blade of grass to the eyeballs and fur of the lions is 100 percent photorealistic. Director Jon Favreau employs the same hyper realism technique he did in the terrific The Jungle Book, but the results here are far less effective.
Making this film hyper real looking exposes two vital downsides of the original – that it has a simplistic story, and cliché and cringey soap opera style resolutions to conflicts. The original was such a classic because it hid those downsides with beautiful, colourful animation, sympathetic, emotionally charged faces on the animals, and an extraordinary soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Elton John to tug at your heartstrings during the emotionally heavy moments. Favreau removes these very elements in the remake, making this a drab looking film bereft of colour, with the animals having no emotional core, and adds atrocious remixes of the classic songs. The Jungle Book needed a human Mowgli to keep the emotional core alive and because The Lion King doesn’t have this compass, we’re left with a rather dreary nature documentary of sorts.
Things ‘happen’ in this film – but they don’t carry much weight. Simba’s journey is supposed to be transformational and heroic, but the transitions are too quick and lack energy. The message is very much there – that a man shielded by privilege needs to step out and live with the commoners to gain a better perspective on life, and this remake had a golden opportunity to dig deeper into these themes, but the script by Jeff Nathanson makes no such effort. Simba’s arc in the entire film is only anchored by luck – that after being banished from his kingdom he meets two jolly friends and a paradise like society which takes care of him, after which he luckily bumps into his childhood friend who takes him back home, and his two friends help him overthrow the evil Scar.
Disney has retooled some of its classic stories to make them more progressive and nuanced, but we don’t see that in this Lion King. There is some hint towards Scar’s army of hyenas being MAGA nutters but it’s too one-dimensional to take notice. The comic relief comes predictably from Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen) but here’s the thing about this whole cast – there’s no shaking away their personalities which are given a bigger focus that the characters in the story. For example there is John Oliver playing Zazu, instead of Zazu the character being incidentally voiced by Oliver – the distinction is important because the film pushes celebrity faces rather than good storytelling. If there’s any statement this film makes it is that voice actors need to get back into recording booths – films like these are not going to make less money by giving experts jobs that utilise their expertise.
Negative buzz would not harm The Lion King because it is too big a brand to fail, but it does indicate Disney’s proclivity for greedily rushing into rehashing classic properties – which is ironic considering what Scar does to the Pride Lands in this film. We still have the Mulan live action remake to look forward to, and hopefully it would contain the one thing that Dumbo, Aladdin and this film didn’t – a soul.
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